09/07/2010 10:57AM

Candy Land

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If the congregation would please turn to the Gospel According to the California Horse Racing Board, Book of Rules, Chapter 1699, Verse (c), and read along as follows:

"A horse which interferes with another and thereby causes any other horse to lose stride, ground or position, when such other horse is not at fault and when such interference occurs in a part of the race where the horse interfered with loses the opportunity to place where it might, in the opinion of the Stewards, be reasonably expected to finish, may be disqualified and placed behind the horse so interfered with."

We will now sing "We Shall Gather at the River."

Horseplayers who were under the impression that stewards of the California variety just make it up as they go probably will be surprised to read the above passage. Though thoroughly lawyered with more escape clauses than a oil drilling contract, the particulars of 1699(c) make it fairly clear that the victim in an interference situation must pretty much prove his victimhood if the transgressor is going to suffer any consequences.

The issue arose last Sunday at Del Mar when Twirling Candy, a blinkered, near black, high-spirited son of Candy Ride, took his unsuspecting gray opponent Summer Movie for a tour of the center of the course as the field for the Del Mar Derby turned onto the backstretch of the 9-furlong grass race. It was a wild few moments, clearly lasting longer than either Joel Rosario, on Twirling Candy, or Victor Espinoza, clinging to Summer Movie, would have preferred. As Espinoza noted later, when back safely on the ground, Summer Movie was not only bumped and ushered far off line, he crossed his legs and nearly stumbled. Gasps from the crowd and announcer Trevor Denman could be heard far and wide.

Twirling Candy finally got his act together to cruise home by better than three lengths, with Rosario wrapped up, looking sheepish. Summer Movie was last, trailing the fifth-place finisher by nearly seven lengths. An inquiry ensued, during which the stewards decided that Summer Movie was clearly bothered by Twirling Candy, but that the interference did not cost Summer Movie a placing, per 1699(c). The result stood.

And the boos rained down, a rare sound at laid-back Del Mar, as Denman made the announcement, after repeated showings of the patrol tape video throughout the grandstand and on the infield video board. Denman, speaking for the stewards, was forced to explain that based on what happened to Summer Movie subsequent to the incident, a disqualification of the winner would have been "unjustified."

"I'm sure fans were reacting to the dramatic video," said steward Scott Chaney. "There was clearly interference. But that is not the only standard."

In the parlance of stewards through the ages, there is an officiating philosophy referred to as "a foul is a foul." This hard-line stance was standard policy at many East Coast tracks for many years, holding that any action deemed to have caused interference was automatically punishable by disqualification. It did not matter if a violator won off with clear superiority. A foul was a foul, and he came down. This happened notoriously in the 1971 Woodward Stakes, when Cougar II and Bill Shoemaker were cited for leaning in while on their way to a romping win, and even more notoriously in the 1967 Jersey Derby when an overly enthusiastic Manuel Ycaza, aboard Dr. Fager, squeezed the field from his outside post leaving the gate, before going on to win by a pole.

Nowadays, the thinking is more serpentine, sort of "foul, no harm, okay, no foul." In the case of the Del Mar Derby, the stewards did the math and decided that the ground lost by Summer Movie entering the backstretch did not put him close enough for a piece of the purse at the end. They noted that Summer Movie re-engaged Twirling Candy once again on the far turn, and that Espinoza even used the whip a couple of times in the stretch while his mount retreated, the conclusion being that Summer Movie was always going to finish where he finished no matter what.

This, of course, is the kind of magical thinking that stewards must employ from time to time, just to get to the end of the day. Holding the firm conviction that Summer Movie was the same Summer Movie before and after being shivareed into the middle of the course is a difficult trick, and bless them for such Solomonic certainty. There was clearly nothing Rosario could have done differently, outweighed has he was by half a ton of Twirling Candy. The rule, as applied, simply accounts for bad luck. The rub of the green.

What if, Chaney was asked, Espinoza had been tossed from the saddle, or if Summer Movie had fallen? The steward replied that, even in the face of overwhelming superiority, there was a "strong likelihood" Twirling Candy would have been disqualified because there would have been no way of knowing where Summer Movie would have eventually placed. Given that, the Twirling Candy folks owe their victory to the ability of Espinoza to hang on and Summer Movie to keep his feet.

There is a worry that failing to penalize such obvious interference with a disqualification encourages rough riding. Not so, Chaney insisted, citing the Cinderella Stakes at Hollywood Park last June when She'll Heir and Rafael Bejarano bulled their way through a tight pack to win drawing off. The result stood, but Bejarano was suspended five days. Later on, we can argue if such a penalty is a deterrent, but it's at least in the ballpark.

Twirling Candy was going to win the Del Mar Derby even if he'd given the rest of them a head start. That's clear. What's also clear is a longing among some horseplayers and horsemen for the simplicity of a zero-tolerance atmosphere of enforcement, with no room for nuance or mitigating circumstance. The current system does not come close to what I like to call the Jerardi Ultimatum (named for colleague Dick Jerardi, its passionate advocate), in which stewards are used only as doorstops and no result is ever over-turned. In the end perhaps it's a good thing that there is room for stewards to maneuver, and to arrive at a final decision that is the least offensive to the most who care. But if enough people don't like rules, the rules eventually will be changed. That's how the game is played. I'm just glad Secretariat held a straight line in the Belmont.